Handheld GPS 201: Using online tracks for trails
One of my early experiences with GPS surprised me. I went out for a hike in Van Damme State Park, using my GPS to collect a track along the way. When I got home I transferred the track to my computer, opened it in a mapping program, and was surprised to find that my track was a lot more accurate than the USGS map of the trail.
It turns out that this is more the rule than the exception. If you want to accurately locate a trail on your GPS or on a map, there is no substitute for a good track recorded by a high-sensitivity GPS receiver (which means just about any released in the last few years). Now if you’re the kind of person who goes to the same place over and over, no problem; you can collect your own track. But I’m an explorer. My best days on the trail are spent covering ground I’ve never traversed before. Lucky for folks like me, there are plenty of websites where you can download tracks of trails. Some even have a transfer button so that you can connect your GPS directly. For others, you’ll need to download a track file and transfer it your device.
GPX track files
The files you download will most likely come with a .gpx file extension. And while there are many mapping software programs that will open them, you can just drag and drop the files to most modern GPS receivers. With newer Garmin handhelds you put them in the Garmin/GPX folder. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to preview the file in a mapping program first, and older receivers will likely require a program for transferring the track file. Finally, before we move on, be aware that .gpx files can contain waypoints, tracks AND/OR routes, so a file may contain more than just the track of the trail.
Websites for downloading GPS tracks
This is really tough. There are so many sites out there for this, so I’m only going to cover a few.
- Garmin Connect (pictured above) – Massive user base but seems to be more for runners and road bikers than backcountry types; search functionality isn’t that great
- Trimble Outdoors – They also partner with Backpacker magazine, so you’ll often find longer trails here
- GPSies – I like the fact that this one tells you how many files they have per country; for the US it’s over 17,000
- GoBreadcrumbs – This site has more trails in the US, followed by Europe and Canada (thanks to @atlascached for suggesting these last two)
- UPDATE: EveryTrail – This site has one of the largest databases out there; I left it out initially because I couldn’t find GPX download links anymore. It turns out they they are only available on user-uploaded trips and not on their Guides. Search for a destination or trail and chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for. Thanks to gpshiker for helping me figure it out.
Don’t overlook the king of search. Try searching for a park or trail name and gpx.
Regional and sport specific sites
There may be a website that offers GPX downloads for trails in your area. Hiking club sites are a good place to check. For example, one of my favorites for the southern Appalachians is the Carolina Mountain Club. And there are sport-specific sites like MTBGuru.com. Heck there are even sport AND region specific sites. You’ll often have to look around a bit for the .gpx download link – try doing CTRL-F (CMD-F on a Mac) and enter gpx to search the page.
Take with a grain of salt
There are a few caveats for using these in the field:
- As always with GPS, you should come equipped with a map and compass and know how to use them
- The downloaded tracks are representations of someone else’s experience, and may include a wildly inaccurate track, wrong turns, etc.
- Check to be sure that the downloaded track matches up to written trail descriptions
Share your tracks
If you take a trail that you can’t find online, consider uploading your own track file and sharing it with others.
The Garmin advantage
Newer Garmin units have a very cool feature. If you load a track file and select it for navigation, it will automatically create a route with any waypoints you have along the trail and even insert waypoints for high and low points along the track. Neat, huh?